Air Quality and Covid-19: What to Expect When School Starts this Fall

During the 2020-2021 school year, most school districts, parents, and students agreed that in-person learning was too risky due the Covid-19 pandemic, thus classes were held online at home via a video link. Now, with the fall 2021 semester fast approaching, the resurgent Delta variant has experts analyzing the available data and giving recommendations on how to proceed with the new school year.

Organizations like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recognize that in-person education is vital for social development, mental and physical health, which is why they have recommended students return to their classrooms this coming school year. Many school districts are taking precautions by requiring masking, vaccinations and testing to ensure that students and faculty remain safe.

Why schools have remained open

In addition to the CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO) has also recommended opening schools in the fall of 2021. This decision comes in the wake of studies showing that while there have been some cases of transmission, schools have not been a significant factor in the spread of Covid-19, either within the classroom or as the starting point for a breakout within a community. 

International studies have also revealed how the physical activity, screen time and sleep of young people have all been negatively impacted by the social isolation brought on by the pandemic. Perhaps even more worrying are the mental and emotional impacts, as there have been increases in anxiety, depression and substance abuse among school-aged children.

Despite earlier data showing children were less prone to infection by the original Covid strains, the more infectious Delta variant spreading has resulted in thousands of children across the country testing positive for coronavirus every day. For parents, this troubling trend should compel them to take precautions before sending their children to school.

Use many layers of defense

Epidemiologists have discovered some basic facts about Covid-19 that allow for a handful of key strategies (i.e. masking, social distancing and frequent hand washing) to prevent infection, but we are still unsure as to why different people react differently to the infection. It is also equally unclear to what degree viral exposure results in infection. These complex factors are why the CDC recommends using as many practical safety precautions as possible when returning to school. Some of them may be out of direct parental control and are better addressed with the administration, school board, or other community organization. But parents can do the following:

  • Vaccination. As of July 2021, 97% of people in the hospital with Covid-19 are unvaccinated. Globally, vaccination is considered the primary prevention strategy by health professionals. At the time of writing vaccines for children under 12 have not been approved, so until they are, getting vaccinated should be a priority for anyone who is in regular contact with young children to drastically reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
  • Outdoor spaces. There have been relatively few reported cases of Covid spreading outdoors and they mostly involve large gatherings. When playing sports, visiting or doing schoolwork outdoors the CDC says masks are only necessary when within six feet of someone outside your household. If kids need to interact with the unvaccinated or friends and relatives with an unknown exposure risk (travelers, users of public transportation, etc.), it is best to do so outside in the open air.
  • Hygiene. The CDC is no longer recommending the disinfection of surfaces, but handwashing and watching where you sneeze and cough is still important. Washing your hands with soap and water reduces the risk of transmitting infections. Also, even non-infectious coughs and sneezes should be directed into a tissue or an elbow to keep airborne particles to a minimum, after which the tissue should be thrown away and hands washed again.

Recommendations that are likely best taken up with the community include:

  • Masks. Covid-19 is an airborne virus so using a mask to minimize inhaling and exhaling particles can reduce risk. The CDC is recommending that everyone who visits a school should wear a mask at all times regardless of vaccination status.
  • Testing and screening. Covid tests are not 100% accurate, but they are accurate enough to be reliable, and screening involves asking about any recent symptoms or exposure to someone who tested positive, and sending anyone who might be spreading home. Regular testing of students and staff make it possible to detect breakthrough infections of the vaccinated. When this happens infected individuals should be instructed to stay home until they test negative. 
  • Spacing. Airborne viruses spread when an individual is exposed to enough virus particles to be infected — a single particle alone is generally not enough. Classroom social distancing of at least 3 feet is recommended by the CDC. 
  • Ventilation. Maximizing ventilation can dilute virus particles. This is best achieved with fans, open windows and up-to-code HVAC systems set to bring in the maximum amount of outside air. Portable air purifiers also add a layer of protection, though the CDC’s research notes that using masks greatly increases the effectiveness of an air purifier.

Taken alone, none of these precautions can totally protect anyone from viral infection, but each one has an impact, and can lower risk far more significantly when taken together.

Indoor air quality at school

Many of the strategies to reduce Covid exposure and transmission rely on managing the air quality to lower the concentration of virus particles. Unfortunately, aside from the pandemic, poor air quality is also an ongoing problem in American schools. The EPA even devotes a section of their website specifically to addressing air quality in schools, which is linked to poor academic performance. 

The average school building in America is 42 years old and most will begin to deteriorate at 40. Renovation is required for problems like mold, dust and insect allergens that build up over time, and any construction work brings along its own set of air quality concerns like VOCs and hazardous building materials. All of these contaminants can trigger asthma, allergies, or other problems.

Asthma and allergies

These asthma triggers are the most common causes of inflammatory lung disease in America. Asthma emergencies and other problems cause children to miss school more than any other chronic disease and accounts for millions of school days lost each year.

Managing asthma and symptoms at home is vital, but reducing exposure to asthma triggers when not at home is also important. Keeping schools free of asthma triggers can help reduce missed days. Airborne triggers that can be avoided with proper maintenance include mold and dust from cockroaches or pests. In addition, cleaning chemicals, pesticides, perfumes or animal dander brought in from pets at home or from classroom animals may be present.

Ventilation

Even though humans add pollution every day, outdoor air is constantly renewed and recycled by sunlight and other natural processes. Because there is no sunlight and few natural processes indoors, pollution can build up more easily, and could be much more concentrated.

The carbon dioxide we exhale and the trace amounts of volatile organic compounds that offgas from manufactured products are not very toxic in low concentrations. However, if there is not enough outside air introduced into a room these substances can build up and cause immediate problems like decreased cognitive scores.

Take action on indoor air quality

Parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members should all be aware of how to maintain good air quality in the classroom and how to recognize the symptoms of poor air quality. The EPA has a great list of ways that different members of the community can take action on indoor air quality in the classroom.

Teachers and other staff members have the best angle on classroom air quality. They can report when the air is poor and be sure that the classroom is free of excessive chemicals, dusty materials, or other sources of contaminants.

Apart from being aware of air quality issues to report any problems, parents and students help to form or participate in an indoor air quality committee at the school. This is particularly important for children with asthma or allergies and their parents, as they can best advocate for the reduction of specific triggers.

Facility managers can inspect the HVAC system and the connected systems to be sure that poor air quality is not deteriorating the equipment and have a plan to continue to improve. Administrators and school officials can read and understand about air quality, how to measure it, and how to make a case for resources to improve it.

 

At Molekule we are always trying to find new and better ways not just to clean the air but to tell people about it. We post information here on our blog and on our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.

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